For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
In July 1938 the Spanish Republican Army confounded many around the world – not least those in Franco’s Spain – who considered it a spent force, by launching a huge and ambitious attack back across the River Ebro. Fighting alongside the Spanish soldiers of the 80 000 strong Republican Army of the Ebro were a number of English-speaking volunteers, within the 15 International Brigade. Drawn mainly from Britain, the USA and Canada, the brigade also included volunteers from Ireland, Australia and from a number of other countries around the world.
Fighting in the full, glaring heat of the Spanish summer, lacking food and water and severely outgunned and outnumbered, the members of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade fought in a number of vicious battles between July and September 1938. On Hill 481 near Gandesa, on Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols and Hill 356 in the Sierra Caballs, the British were bombed, shelled and attacked remorselessly by Franco’s forces and his German and Italian allies. On 23 September 1938 on the battalion’s final action on the road just north of the village of Corbera d’Ebre, the last remaining members of the battalion were virtually overrun.
At 1 a.m. the following morning the order finally arrived withdrawing the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan later described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.”
In September 2013 a group of friends and families of the International Brigades returned to Catalonia to remember the sacrifices made all those years ago. The trip was organised by Duncan Longstaff, a trustee of the International Brigades Memorial Trust assisted by Almudena Cros, Severiano Montero and Vicente González of AABI, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades. While IBMT members from the UK made up the majority of the group, there were also participants from Ireland, the United States, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Besides visiting battle sites of particular significance to the English-speaking 15 International Brigade, the trip to Catalonia also included the unveiling of two memorials to the volunteers and the laying of flowers and a wreath at the site of the British Battalion’s final action in Spain.
The first memorial to be unveiled was a new plaque dedicated to the British members of the medical services who worked in the former cave hospital in La Bisbal de Falset during the summer of 1938. Here, British members of the Republican medical services struggled in almost impossible conditions to treat those wounded in the bitter fighting. During the Ebro offensive everything had to be carried across pontoon bridges by lorry, or ferried across in boats during the night, so the facilities were necessarily limited. Serious casualties had to be taken back across the river to the improvised cave hospital set up by Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the medical services for the Republican 35 Division, in Falset. British doctors and nurses, such as Len Saxton and Patience Darton, worked around the clock, with the desperate shortages of materials forcing them to improvise and develop innovative treatments. Allied soldiers fighting in the Second World War would benefit greatly from lessons learned in Spain in areas such as casualty management, blood transfusions and the treatment of fractures.
The second unveiling was of a new memorial dedicated to those killed in the final last action of the British Battalion in Spain. The plaque is situated in the old village of Corbera d’Ebre, which remains virtually in the condition it was at the end of the civil war. In amongst the ruins lies the village’s former church, now converted into a dramatic space for gatherings, exhibitions and commemorations. At the time of the ceremony held on 24 September 2013, the former church was hosting a strikingly poignant art installation comprised of suspended roof tiles, caught as if at the moment of an explosion. Behind the artwork, further within the building, lay the IBMT Antifascistas exhibition, shown for the first time in Spain. The exhibition will remain in the church until November 2013.
After a ceremony held within the church came the final event of the day and, for many, of the trip itself, with the laying of flowers and wreath at the position of the battalion’s final stand, some 4 kilometres north of Corbera.
For this year’s Len Crome lecture a number of historians were brought together to discuss George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937. This is the first of four lectures, which features a lecture and discussion of George Orwell and the British Battalion in Spain.
This is one of the first photographs taken of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Kneeling in front in white trousers, is Tom Wintringham, who commanded the British Battalion in their first action in Spain, at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama in February 1937 and paraded in front of the cameras of Movietone News under the watchful eye of their Civil Guard captors. The prisoners were eventually released and repatriated in May 1937.
Members of the British Anti-Tank Battery relaxing at their base in Ambite in autumn 1937
The British Anti-Tank Battery was an eilte unit formed in June 1937 and armed with state-of-the-art Russian guns. Hugh Slater, in the centre of the photo, replaced Malcolm Dunbar as their commander in August 1937.
Thanks to Joan Brown, Jim Carmody, Dan Payne and others for their help in identifying everyone. If you know the name of any of the unknown volunteers, please get in touch.
When ninety-four year old David Lomon died just before Christmas 2012, he was almost certainly the last of the volunteers from the Spanish Civil War still to be alive in Britain. While his former comrade from London, Geoffrey Servante, was known to be alive a few years ago living in the Forest of Dean, no word has been heard for some time, so it seems all too probable that he too is, sadly, no longer with us.
Former British volunteer Stan Hilton
There is, though, still one British veteran who is still very much alive and well. However he no longer lives in Britain, but in Australia. In Yarrawonga, to be precise, just over 200km north of Melbourne, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. It’s a long way from his birthplace of Newhaven (looking at the map, it’s a long way from anywhere).
According to what he told David, Stan was nineteen when he jumped from his ship, the S.S. Pilson in Alicante in November 1937, after hitting an officer who’d been pushing him around. While the former ship’s steward apparently recalled little of his time in Spain, he did remember assaulting another officer he had taken a dislike to. He also described how, contrary to his and many other volunteer’s perceptions, Spain was by no means always sunny. In fact, ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he recalled.
We know from documents held in London and Moscow that, following a period of training with the British Battalion, Stan became caught up in the chaotic Republican retreats which resulted from Franco’s colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up swimming across the River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse) by Franco’s soldiers, before deciding that he had had enough of the Spanish war. In March 1938, with the British captain’s permission, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
Stan Hilton reacquainting himself with Spain
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. And there he remained.
Stanley Gordon Hilton is now ninety-five years of age. He is also, as David Leach will testify, still alert, fit and healthy. They say that the struggle keeps you young and it certainly seems to be the case with Stan. Which struggles, however are not entirely clear. As David Leach explained, although English-born, Stan has always possessed a traditional Australian attitude towards authority:
‘I liked mucking about,’ Stan recalled over a glass of red wine at home in Yarrawonga. ‘I didn’t like being ordered around.’
For anyone connected with the British volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during Spain’s civil war, 2013 has great and heavy significance. It seems almost certain that this is the first year since the start of the war itself that there are no British veterans around to explain the relevance of the events in Spain all those years ago. Over the years, I have got to know a number of former volunteers: some like Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and David Marshall were members of the committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; others such as Bill Alexander, Bob Doyle, Fred Thomas and George Wheeler I got to know having interviewed them. However, it was not until February 2011 that I first met former British volunteer David Lomon. Having returned from Spain in 1938, he had lost touch with his former comrades in the International Brigades. Only when he came across an article in the April 2009 issue of the magazine of SAGA, the organisation aimed at the over 50s, was David prompted to get back in touch. The article, by the historian Max Arthur on the Britons who fought against Franco, reported that only eight veterans of the Spanish war were still alive; David of course knew otherwise. He contacted SAGA in order to put the matter right and his letter was spotted by a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who informed the committee. I arranged to meet David at his house in Bourne End, in Buckinghamshire in order to interview him about his time in Spain.
Clichéd though it may sound, when I turned up at his home and David answered the door, I sincerely believed that I was talking to his son. Only when he introduced himself did I realise that the smartly-dressed, polite and welcoming man was a ninety-two year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The interview was a similar surprise; despite apologising for being unable to remember precise details, David talked lucidly for two hours on his experiences in Spain and afterward. It was a fascinating story and the interview formed the basis of a short piece in the May 2011 issue of the IBMT newsletter. It also provided me with great new material for my then forthcoming book Unlikely Warriors and, above all, it enabled me to get to know a thoroughly likeable and decent man who had lived a long and fascinating life.
Born David Solomon in Manchester on 22 November 1918, David was the youngest of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. David was schooled in Manchester, but the early death of his father when David was only fifteen brought his education to an abrupt halt, dashing any dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, his mother decided to move the family to Hackney, in London’s east-end, to be nearer her relatives. There David soon became caught up in the growing resistance against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were virtually besieging the area and terrorising its Jewish population. Galvanised by his participation in anti-fascist demonstrations, including the huge and infamous confrontation around Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, the young Jewish clothing cutter took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. In order to establish sufficient political credentials, he joined the Young Communist League and in December 1937 volunteered to join the International Brigades. ‘After the Mosley East-End business’, David explained to me, ‘I wanted to go to Spain, so I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people, who I could use to get over to Spain … I wanted to do something, I wanted to fight fascism.’
Prudently changing his surname from Solomon to Lomon in order to avoid being singled out if captured, David travelled to Paris using the familiar route of the British volunteers: a weekend ticket, which did not require a passport. From there he travelled south by coach to the Spanish border and underwent an exhausting and dangerous trek over the Pyrenees at night. United with his comrades from Britain, he joined the Clement Attlee Company of the British Battalion as a machine-gunner and infantryman. Amongst the volunteers, David was unusual in having studied Spanish and Spanish politics at school, so was given a political appointment. He was lucky enough to meet both the British Labour leader, Clement Attlee, and the American singer Paul Robeson who performed for the members of the battalion and shook all their hands. After minimal training, David was rushed up to the front in the spring of 1938 and joined the desperate Republican efforts to repulse a colossal Francoist offensive. Thirteen divisions, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean outnumbering the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the government lines virtually collapsed. David was one of more than one hundred members of the battalion to be captured by Italian soldiers at Calaceite in eastern Aragon on 31 March 1938.
Driven off by truck, he and the other prisoners were incarcerated in the Francoist concentration camp in the old decaying monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos in northern Spain. As many former inmates attest, the conditions in the camp were overcrowded, insanitary and extremely cruel: ‘We never dreamt that guards could be so brutal to other human beings,’ remarked one of David’s fellow prisoners. In June David was transferred to an Italian run camp at Palencia, where the inmates sung a version of the song that had been popular since the first battle of the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937, sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a prison in Spain called Palencia
’Tis a place we know all too well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And spent months of misery and hell.
Surrounded one day by Italians
Who with guns bought by Chamberlain’s gold
Blown to hell by artillery and avion
That’s how our brave comrades were sold.
David Lomon displaying his portrait drawn by Clive Branson in August 1938
At Palencia David became good friends with Clive Branson, a talented artist from Battersea in London. Branson made a number of highly accomplished sketches of prisoners at San Pedro and Palencia, including David and a young volunteer and Communist Party member called Alfred Sherman who, much later in his life, would found the Thatcherite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Though Clive Branson was killed in Burma during the Second World War, the drawings remain and I was fortunate enough to be at the Marx Memorial Library last year, when David took his very first glimpse of the sketch since it had been drawn in Palencia all those years ago.
David was released in October 1938 and repatriated. Back home he returned to his former work as a clothing cutter and studied as a designer. He also married Millie Levine, who he had known from his time in the YCL. She would later follow him when he decided to leave the Young Communist League for the Labour Party, appalled at Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939: ‘I was pleased I didn’t join the Communist Party because, being Jewish, well, that Stalin should link up with [Hitler] was unbelievable’, he told me.
With one child already and another on the way, David was not able to return to war until 1941. Seeing the two wars as part and parcel of the same conflict, he volunteered to join the navy. ‘I had to join up. I had to do something,’ he explained to me. He joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was rejected as a pilot as he could only breathe through one nostril, following an unsuccessful operation. Instead he joined general service and was selected to join an Officer Training Course in Scotland. It was not to last long. He was soon dismissed by an ‘aggressive’ superior, after David refused to box with an opponent who was much weaker than himself, ‘a nervous, gentle sort of lad,’ as he described him. David used to box with the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and, all too typically, opposed what he felt would not be a fair fight. He was returned to general service as a navigator’s yeoman on a minesweeper, sweeping the English channel before D Day and through the landings themselves. He was then sent to the far east around Burma and the Malaya Strait and Rangoon where his fleet was subjected to a terrifying attack by Japanese Kamikazi planes, in which they lost two of their ships.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, David was demobbed and returned to London, to resume his life and work. Introduced to a Mr. Lawson, the head of a large retail company in Glasgow, David was asked to become a partner in a new wholesale group he was setting up in London’s west-end. David would remain at the group, Barnett Lawson Trimmings, until he retired as Managing Director, thirty-five years later.
‘Wrapped up in family life’, as he put it and having left the YCL for the Labour Party on his return from Spain, David made no contact with his fellow veterans of Spain in the International Brigade Association. It was only when he saw the SAGA article in 2010 that David felt prompted to make contact. Having received a warm welcome from the members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he generously donated his time and energy in travelling around Britain and Spain delivering eloquent speeches on the importance of the war in Spain. In October 2011, David was one of a handful of surviving veterans to return to Madrid for a reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation on the International Brigades. David’s speech, given at the inauguration of a new memorial to the International Brigades in the Spanish capital’s University City, is worthy of repeating:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism.
We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. ¡Salud!
When the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition was shown in Eastbourne in April 2012, David was there to lend his support and encountered a young Spaniard from Burgos in northern Spain: ‘Gracias de mi corazón’ (‘my heartfelt thanks’) he declared. David was also present at the annual commemoration of the IBMT at London’s south bank in July 2012, where he laid a wreath and was presented with a flag by Almudena Cros of the Spanish Asociación des Amigos de Brigadas Internacionales. David was as charming as as ever and I suspect Almudena gave him her heart as well as the flag. He was, as his obituary in the Daily Mail portrayed him, ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. I will always treasure the Christmas card he sent me this year, in which he jokingly thanked me ‘for keeping this old dinosaur going’. As I told his son Irving, aside from the respect I had for David for his actions in the past, I had got to really like him for the way he was in the present: open, generous and genuinely modest.
David Lomon and Almudena Cros at the IBMT’s 2012 commemoration in Jubliee Gardens
Right to the end, David remained proud of the efforts made by him and his fellow international volunteers on behalf of the Spanish government during the civil war. The award of Spanish citizenship to David in May 2011 was an honour that he richly deserved and I know it gave him great pleasure and pride.
David’s wife Millie died in 1997, but he will be sorely missed by his three children, Stanley, Yvonne and Irving, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and by all of those who remain eternally grateful of the efforts made by him in Spain and around the world to help defeat the evils of fascism and Nazism.
David Lomon, the last of the UK-based unlikely warriors, 22 November 1918 to 21 December 2012.
On the Saturday I was privileged to give the annual lecture to the Basque Children of ’37 Association, often known as the niños, on the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Britain. In front of at least one of the original children, family members and other historians, I discussed the differing experiences in Britain during the Second World War of the children and the former British volunteers in the International Brigades. The highly knowledgeable audience ensured that there was a great discussion after the lecture. Thanks to Natalaia Benjamin for organising the event and Manuel Moreno for his exuberant chairing. A transcript of the talk is available via academia.edu.
The Sunday saw a trip to Hungerford’s book festival to publisize my latest book Unlikely Warriors. Also present at the event was David Boyd Haycock whose I am Spain, published this month, looks at the more intellectual volunteers for Spain: Orwell, Hemingway etc. It was a well attended event, with another fully engaged audience. Thanks to all who attended and the Hungerford bookshop for organising it.
L to R: IBMT patron and former UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, Richard Baxell and Hywel Francis M.P.
On Monday 17 September 2012, the London Welsh Centre hosted an event to launch the 2012 edition of Hywel Francis’ study of the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Miners Against Fascism and my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors.
Chaired by the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaff, it was a great event, well organised, well-attended and well-received. Many thanks to Lynne Walsh and the London Welsh Centre. It was great to spend the evening chatting to Hywel Francis over a glass (ahem) of wine, for he knew many of the Welsh volunteers personally.
Sadly the evening was overshadowed by the sad news of the death of former International Brigader Lou Kenton. ‘He was’, said Jim Jump, the Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, ‘a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, a lifelong trade union activist, a fighter for progressive causes and a gifted graphic artist.’
On Friday 14 September 2012 I joined Paul Preston and Lydia Syson, the author of the teen novel, A World Between Us, to discuss fact and fiction in the writings on the Spanish Civil War as part of the literary festival held in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.
Th panel was expertly chaired by cultural historian Christopher Cook, director of the BBC documentary, Return to the Battlefields, which followed a group of British International Brigade veterans as they returned to Spain – many for the first time – in 1985. He clearly knew what he was about and asked a number of interesting and searching questions.
Unfortunately, I inadvertently blotted my copybook by revealing the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls during an explantion of how I had first became interested in the subject. Apologies to anyone whose reading was spoiled! After the customary book-signing we discovered that sitting among the audience was the first four minute miler, Sir Roger Banister. He bought a copy of Lydia’s book, which was rather nice.
Thanks to all involved – particularly the well-informed and enthusiastic audience – for a successful and enjoyable event.
The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:
When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.
The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.
The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.
Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.
Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’
The Battle of Jarama in February 1937, the first action of the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, provided a brutal wake-up call for both the volunteers themselves and the British Communist Party, which had recruited them. During three days of bitter and sustained fighting, the six hundred poorly-trained, ill-equipped ‘city-bred young men’ were attacked by an overwhelming force, comprising the cream of Franco’s professional army, backed up by German armour. That the British Battalion managed to hold the line – just – was a feat of both stubborn defiance and astonishing bravery. But the cost was substantial. After the three days of fighting of 12-14 February, less than half the Battalion remained; Suicide Hill was not named in vain. As the Scottish Political Commissar, Peter Kerrigan, later stated, ‘this battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’
Ben Hughes new study places the battle of Jarama at the centre of the story of the British and Irish in Spain. Drawing on the numerous memoirs, both published and held in archives around the world, They Shall Not Pass! successfully weaves the volunteers’ accounts together, contextualising them within a clear narrative. This is a satisfyingly well-written account which tells the, often horrifying, story with both verve and understanding.
Divided into three parts, the book’s scope actually extends beyond Jarama, though the main focus of the book is, of course, the battle itself. Part one begins with a chapter to set the scene, before two chapters briefly sketch out the volunteers’ journeys to Spain and the hurried and limited attempts to transform the volunteers’ political will into military skill. Hughes then returns to the Jarama Valley, concluding his first section at lunchtime on 12 February 1937, with the battalion under attack, but dug in, still determined that that the fascists will not pass.
In the second and crucial section of the book, Hughes reveals how the naïve optimism of the novice volunteer soldiers was violently shattered by the terrifying onslaught of Franco’s elite troops of the Army of Africa. Ten graphic chapters provide ‘a micro history’ of the battle, almost forensic in the attention to detail. Hughes has clearly spent considerable time on his primary research here and the work certainly pays off. The events are recounted from, in Hughes words, ‘a worm’s eye point of view,’ which provides the reader with an understanding of how shocking the experiences of the Jarama battle – and the war in Spain for that matter – really were for the volunteers.
The third and final part of the book provides an account of the experiences of the British and Irish volunteers from the battle of Brunete of July 1937, through to their return to Britain at the end of 1938. Unfortunately, this section is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps because the previous sections have set such a high standard. Increasingly reliant on secondary sources, it offers nothing like the level of detail of the earlier chapters and is correspondingly less original and informative.
Interest picks up again in the epilogue, which brings the account up to the present day, revealing what happened to the veterans of Jarama during the Second World War and thereafter. For example, the later lives of the three commanders of the battalion at Jarama, Tom Wintringham, Jock Cunningham and Fred Copeman, certainly make interesting reading.
The book also benefits from two useful appendices, including directions to help locate the actual site of the February battle, which I’m sure a number of IBMT members will find beneficial. There is a thorough index and copious footnotes, both of which should prove valuable for students and researchers. All the maps are very clear and other good touches are the brief biographies of the dramatis personae and the numerous photographs, including a number of colour pictures of Jarama features such as the sunken road and ‘the knoll’ in the present day.
There are, of course, a few areas where the reader may disagree with Hughes’ approach or conclusions – I think that he overestimates the casualty rates at Jarama, for example – and there are a number of oversights and little errors, inevitable in a book of this scope and probably only apparent or of interest to the specialist. Most, though, do not detract from what, I think, is one of the best recent additions to the collection of studies on the brave group of British and Irish volunteers, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.